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In Canada’s Version of Portland, Cancel Culture Comes for ‘Steve-O-Reno’s’

Last year, writer Nancy Rommelmann wrote a widely shared Quillette article entitled “The Internet Locusts Descend on Ristretto Roasters,” in which she described the mob-fueled social panic that had enveloped her husband’s Portland, Oregon café. The mobbing had been set off by a single former employee who’d resigned after seeking to implement a “Reparations Happy Hour,” an event that “would involve stationing white people at the front door to buy patrons of color a coffee.” The resulting ordeal lasted for months, damaged the company’s brand, and ultimately contributed to Rommelmann’s decision to move to a less politically radicalized locale: New York City.

It may seem odd to think that New York would offer the author a respite from progressive sentiment, as opposed to an overdose. But as Rommelmann told Quillette podcast listeners during our conversation, it actually makes sense: In many New York neighbourhoods, there is an organic, longstanding atmosphere of multiculturalism that allows for candor and viewpoint pluralism. In Portland, on the other hand, progressive political culture is dominated by small cliques of largely young, largely white newcomers who are more likely to take their cues from brittle online subcultures than from humane, geographically-rooted civic norms.

Rommelmann also was eager to move to a city with a vibrant national media presence. For all the sporadic attention that Portland gets when local political gangs (we’re no longer allowed to call them “antifa,” apparently) beat up a journalist or try to burn down public buildings, the day-to-day reality is that the city is a media backwater. And this fact clearly contributed to the strength of the mob campaign against her husband’s business: If you Google “Ristretto Roasters,” you’ll find that coverage of the 2018 mobbing was dominated by a handful of tiny blogs and local outlets, most of whose writers seemed deeply enmeshed in the same shrill call-out subculture that spawned the campaign against Ristretto Roasters in the first place.

To my knowledge, there exists no comprehensive study of the individuals and businesses that have been targeted by social-justice trolls. And I am not presuming to offer one here. But as someone who’s served as a writer and editor on this beat for several years, I’ve observed anecdotal evidence suggesting that businesses in a certain kind of town or small city are more vulnerable than those in larger cities—especially if, as with Portland, their political culture is dominated by newly arrived artists, activists, tech workers, and students who imagine participation in social-justice mob activity to be an ideologically mandated extrapolation of their professional or academic métier. These areas are large enough to support a digital ecosystem that can be weaponized by social-justice mobs; but also sufficiently small and parochial to ensure that this ecosystem exists as an insulated monoculture, one in which mobbing participants can freely excuse (or even applaud) tendencies that outside observers would recognize as cruel, anti-social or even sociopathic.

The prime Canadian example is Halifax, capital of the thinly populated Atlantic province of Nova Scotia. While its population is only about 430,000, a third smaller than Portland, the city’s unusually febrile social-justice enthusiasts have generated a number of meltdowns. In 2017, a nationally covered scandal ensued when a Halifax Pop Explosion (HPX) festival volunteer was thrown out of a Lido Pimienta concert for refusing to heed the singer’s demand that the audience self-segregate according to race (with whites moving to the back). Last year, American composer Mary Jane Leach was shamed from the podium at Halifax’s OBEY music convention because she had spoken the name of a work by her long-time friend Julius Eastman—on whose oeuvre she is an acknowledged expert—that included the N-word. And just this month, the HPX leadership collapsed into its own absurd race-recrimination scandal, due to the fallout from an obscure argument on Instagram.

Like Portland, Halifax is a liberal regional hub that acts as a magnet for young people looking to find a job or get discovered. Despite the city’s small size, it has no fewer than seven universities and colleges. (If the reported numbers are credible, something like a quarter of the city’s population is enrolled at one of them.) Historically, the country’s Maritime region has had an unusually strong dependence on government subsidies, including in the field of music and arts. Both of the above-referenced festivals are largely dependent on government grants. As with the increasingly parochial domain of Canadian literature and film, many of the ostensible social-justice-themed disputes in Halifax serve as proxies in regard to status-based competitions for funding, publication and social-media attention within art-house cliques.

Given this kind of environment, it should not be surprising that even humble neighbourhood businesses in Halifax now are at risk of social-justice mobbing. This includes the four-location café chain known as “Steve-O-Reno’s,” which recently offered the following public confession on its Facebook page:

It is with regret that an individual who is not, nor has ever been, an owner or employee of Steve-O-Reno’s has engaged in social media conversations which have been interpreted as anti-Black sentiments. Steve-O-Reno’s staff have dedicated endless time, energy, and resources over the years to foster meaningful relationships within the community. The online conversations of this individual are not associated with our ownership or staff. We recognize it has not been enough to model intolerance for racism—we must instead actively develop, implement, and engage in anti-racist behaviours and policies. We are forging ahead with actionable steps to ensure appropriate anti-racist education for our ownership, our staff and our community. We are committed to unpacking, reflecting, educating ourselves, and establishing…

I will truncate it there, because you can probably write the rest yourself. By now, these penitence rituals have become formulaic, and the hypocrisies at play are well understood. Specifically, we are all supposed to pretend to believe that the ownership and staff of Steve-O-Reno’s now are spending their waking hours imagining how to rid the world of racism, as opposed to mopping floors, operating espresso machines, and otherwise managing the task of staying in business during a pandemic. We are also supposed to pretend to believe that the “social media conversations” at issue were, in fact, good-faith efforts to spread the gospel of anti-racism; when the truth is that everyone to whom Steve-O-Reno’s message was directed knows full well that the teapot tempest could be traced to a single Halifax Facebook user going by the name “Minette Murphy.” Earlier this month, she shamed Steve-O-Reno’s on the basis that the owner’s boyfriend once had posted the following line on his Facebook page: “People will always be slaves to others until they are able to say ‘No.’”

The word “slave” was objectionable, Murphy said. Furthermore, he didn’t remove the post, even after she had demanded that he do so. Murphy also accused him of maintaining a Facebook page that permits the airing of “opposing views,” which means that he “clearly isn’t being anti-racist.” That’s it. That was the scandal.”

(Incidentally, the quote derives from 18th-century French writer Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort—a Jacobin with who, fittingly for our purposes, died of suicide after being targeted during the Reign of Terror in 1793: “Almost all men are slaves for the same reason as the Spartans gave for the servitude of the Persians, the inability to pronounce the syllable No. To be able to pronounce this word and to know how to live alone, are the sole means for conserving one’s freedom and character.”)

Among conservatives and principled liberals, the emerging response to this kind of farce is that the targeted business needs to simply ignore or refute the mob—or otherwise “grow a spine.” But achieving vertebrate status in these situations often is impossible. That’s because staff themselves sometimes will take sides with the mob, since (as the recent hounding out of two of the brightest New York Times editors shows), many young workers are more loyal to their Twitter followers than to their employer. These mortifying apology rituals are often more about staff retention than mollifying some troll.

Moreover, since small markets no longer really have any kind of consistent adult media oversight, and everyone is taking their moral cues from the same handful of Twitter accounts, it’s always an open question whether local journalists will openly take sides with the trolls. (In Halifax, in particular, one of the reasons that a small clique of cancel-culture enthusiasts holds so much sway in the arts scene is that the only coverage these controversies tend to attract is supplied by the Coast, an arts weekly that never stopped cheering on Pimienta’s aforementioned race-shaming of a local music-festival volunteer.)

The nature of the targeted business is also an important factor. One of the reasons why you often see cafés, bakeries, yoga studios, and the like being mobbed by little inquisitors is that they aren’t selling necessities such as cement or roofing shingles. They sell luxury goods to fickle consumers who are buying into a certain brand and ethos, and who expect to have their ideological conceits performatively indulged in return for their tip money. (This helps explain the paradox of why cancel-culture trolls systematically target businesses that already have signaled their progressive bona fides: The more woke the staff and customer base, the easier it is to extract concessions.) Moreover, the clientele of such highly localized businesses often is tethered to a web of neighbourhood-based social media platforms, through which gossip and accusations can spread like wildfire—thereby raising the possibility of shaming not only the business, but also anyone who continues to patronize it.

In Halifax, it’s hardly unrealistic to imagine that whole local markets will switch from Steve-O-Reno’s to, say, Stacey-Tastic or Sam-O-Rama if they find out the fair-trade beans aren’t sourced from the right kind of Guatemalan village, or if the owner’s spouse liked a Tweet from a guy whose cousin once wore a MAGA hat. Unlike me, and maybe you, business owners with payrolls to meet and mortgages to pay don’t have the luxury of being able to fight back every time a social-justice enforcer comes by to stick them with a coroza and sambenito. As with every other kind of shakedown, it often makes good short-term sense to pay up and move on. Which is what the bullies want and expect.

These are tiny battles, of course. And it’s easy to simply roll one’s eyes and let them pass without comment or protest. But as the example of the Times meltdown shows, the culture of fear these bullies collectively spawn can have consequences that affect the political fabric of whole nations—which is why I occasionally will pluck out a representative specimen to dissect. In time, there will be a Thermidorian reaction—as there always is following periods of social panic—and sanity will be restored. But in the meantime, ordinary people of good sense will have to wade into the fray, to speak the truths that these businesses cannot.

And yes, such micro-interventions can be effective. The only reason I know of the campaign against Steve-O-Reno’s is that a playwright named Allan Stratton, who’d finally had his fill of cancel culture, began posting detailed defences of the café chain on Facebook, pointing out how absurdly petty the accusations really were. Others added their voices, the tide seemed to turn slightly; and, in time, Murphy (if that’s her actual name) either deleted her original smear or walled it off from public viewers.

This is just a tiny half-victory in a tiny fight involving a tiny business in a tiny city. But the pushback against mobs cannot be accomplished with any single grand gesture: By its nature, it’s a war that can be won only through the combined effect of many small battles. Like all bullies, cancel-culture trolls are utilitarians who carefully measure payoffs versus costs when they embark on their cynical gambits. By holding them accountable in a consistent and principled fashion, we can ensure that their decision to mob a neighbourhood business will hurt them more than it hurts all the world’s Steves, Staceys, and Sams.

 

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. He tweets at @jonkay.

Featured image: Goya’s sketch of inquisition victim in coroza and sanbenito, created between 1814 and 1823.

Comments

  1. Enmeshed in the authors quite descriptive prose is the seed of an interesting idea. He makes the point that many of these cancel culture mobs exist at the hub of very specialised industries or through the mechanism of publicly funded grants and subsidies. Might it then not be possible to form a third party entirely devoted to the proposition of giving ordinary citizens a bit of peace and quiet from endless protests or boycotts of retailers who have committed quite imaginary sins?

    We could call it the ‘Storm in a Teacup Party’, give out announcements of the more ridiculous made-up offences before Stand-up comedy gigs and campaign using Soviet-style posters and flyers to highlight particularly egregious examples of cancel culture in action. Picture Neil Buckley, the Manchester charity boss sacked for making a distinction between BLM the movement and Black Lives Matter UK, dressed in prison garb with matching cap, shot in grey and placed behind bars, sitting in a cell on a solitary chair- with a caption reading “TRAITOR TO THE REVOLUTION” at the bottom of the poster, complete with a descriptive blurb.

    The point would not be to win the election, but to raise awareness and hopefully garner support for the candidate least likely to endorse cancel culture. With a lobbying interest in local politics, the tap of public funding for the favourite Scatological Artist of woke progressives could then be turned off or on, depending upon how well the cancel mob restricted themselves from impinging on the businesses and livelihoods of ordinary citizens, minding their own business. Who knows, if they persist in their behaviour, we might even get to use some of their favourite funding to do something useful, like fix potholes.

  2. My dearest memory of Halifax was passing a truly beautiful woman prostitute on a sidewalk in the dead of winter. She was wearing an obviously expensive fur coat, and nothing else as she proved by opening it in invitation. That was some 30 years go. I’m sorry to have this memory cheapened by discovering that Halifax is now prey to leftist cancel culture.

  3. What happened with Steve-O-Reno’s is a good example of what it’s like to live in Halifax. Though I love my city, the liberal hub here is domineering, aggressive and all encompassing. The thought police are certainly at work here. As a former student at The University of Kings, a microcosm of this sort of behaviour and community (and full of people not from the Maritimes), I’ve seen a lot of this cancel culture first hand, dished out by hostile people who claim to be for inclusion and acceptance. One instance that has stayed with me was when the University bar wanted to host a Wu-Tang night and it got shut down because some angry students said it would be traumatizing to be in a space with white people singing Wu-Tang lyrics.

    For a school known for it’s journalism department, the student body seems more inclined to banning speech than to giving it a platform. The student council spends more time ripping each other a part than actually doing anything productive for their school or community. And though these are just examples from one university they reflect that of the greater community here in Halifax and in city where “everybody knows everybody” attacks like this can be devastating to small, independent businesses. the young people come here and love the family run businesses because they fit in with their aesthetic, but don’t think of them at all when bullying them online because a guy who knows a guy who worked there once dared put a quote on his facebook wall.

    It’s a shame this small city has suffered so much from the pandemic and loss or tourism, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sad there will be less students here come September. Maybe we can eventually escape from this.

  4. “Historically, the country’s Maritime region has had an unusually strong dependence on government subsidies, including in the field of music and arts.” says it all. The more governments give to arts groups and the like, the higher the concentration of oblivious, self-righteous morons in the area. Fortunately, the people not in these groups tend to be pretty sensible.

  5. You joke, but after the event there was a room set up and filled with dogs where students could go and destress because apparently art college is too much for them.

  6. I hope they covered the floor with WAPO and NYT editorial sections to give the dogs a way to destress.

  7. I disagree. I’m not a student anymore, don’t run in student circles, and still encounter this type of attitude daily. The fact is these student work every service job in the city, they are the face of our tourism industry, they run the bars, the cafes, they work at the libraries and restaurants, and bookstores. These ideas are by no means confined to university campuses.

  8. I agree Steve-O-Reno handled it well. I don’t feel Kay is reaching at all.

    Yes the examples I brought up are school based, but if you accept they are happening on campuses then you must recognize they are happening elsewhere as our population is mostly students. Believe me, the student’s don’t change their views when they leave their universities.

    I am a young person and run in the arts community. It’s hostile and unforgiving and does not accept alternative views. And yes, we’re lucky that in NS we don’t have buildings burning and mass protests, but if we continue to let these sorts of attitudes dominate our society how long until we do?

    With these people, a NS apology may no longer suffice and be taken as an opportunity to be taken advantage.

    And I’ve lived here long enough to know that the NS equivalent of a New Yorker’s “Fuck off”, is fuck off.

  9. I can imagine a rioter exiting a looted Canadian pharmacy with stolen goods in his arms and saying, “Sorry.”

  10. The cancel culture mavens that I keep hearing about all seem to be white and socio-economically privileged. They submit their demands on behalf of people of color, or whomever their most prized victim group is, because this is what they believe is best for that group. They sow the seeds of absurdist discord in the name of that great, sacred OTHER, while failing to consider whether this is indeed a help or a hindrance. In other words, they make decisions by virtuous proxy because they believe themselves to be in the right. Similar to how missionaries peddle their religions, believing themselves to be on the side of the angels. All of these efforts are purely symbolic and do nothing to further the rights, privileges, or prospects of those who they claim to be helping.

    They are probably the the very worst example of white privilege - a concept they leveraged and conflated while ignoring real racism.

  11. I think that’s like trying to ignore a bully. They don’t go away, they just keep attacking you.

    From the article: “Like all bullies, cancel-culture trolls are utilitarians who carefully measure payoffs versus costs when they embark on their cynical gambits.”

    Or phrased another way, you don’t get rid of a bully until someone with enough strength to beat them does so.

  12. “Despite the city’s small size, it has no fewer than seven universities and colleges.”

    Egads, one can only surmise about the quality/quantity ratio given that situation. It cannot be good, not that Ontario is any better. Canada is over-“uni-ed”, and as a former academic librarian of 15 years standing, I can only see that ridiculous ponzi scheme getting worse and worse until it - hopefully - collapses in on itself. I’m hoping the COVID collapse of international student enrollment - which is keeping the lights on for many of these third-rate schools - is the final push to set this in motion.

  13. C.S. Lewis > Quotes > Quotable Quote

    C.S. Lewis

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

    Nice post, thanks.

    I really just post the same things over and over again, because they’re still true! These are not uncharted waters and we can benefit from those who went before us.

  14. I think you have hit upon the reason for the existence of (dare I mention the name…?) Donald Trump. I don’t imagine too many conservatives being genuinely ideologically motivated or even interested in either him or his antics. Instead, I think he was a “bully for hire” and a sufficient plurality of Americans really just wanted to send a pit bull into the social cage as a way of pushing back against the braying of “progressives”.

    The previous 8years were only so much smug self-satisfaction and condescension to the “lowly” that anyone could take and so the election of a crass counterbalance now seems as if the good-sense of the body politic realized that a corrective measure was in order.

  15. Samantha Bee? You can have her back.

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